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Enter the plant doctors to help create a viable agriculture sector
Not all scientists like the term, but most practitioners agree that the deployment of “plant doctors” operating in clinics and tackling a growing variety of potentially devastating pests and diseases can significantly improve the likelihood of a viable agriculture sector. “We are trying to get plant health clinics to the level of animal health clinics…or even what obtains in the human health system,” says Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI) regional representative, Bob Ramnanan.
CABI has been working with the Ministry of Food Production on bringing a nationwide network of clinics on-stream not only for full-fledged farmers, but small-timers and even backyard gardeners growing everything from food and tree crops to ornamental plants. The first clinic was held at the end of August last year.
So far, almost 400 cases from 221 farmers and backyard gardeners have been attended to at eight clinics throughout Trinidad every Tuesday. Operations are yet to begin in Tobago. The project follows the traditional model of plant clinics where farmers can take their ailing patients/plants, secure a diagnosis and be provided with a menu of recommended interventions. One of the main distinctions this time is the fact that the information gathered is now being fed into an international database operated under the “Plantwise” initiative.
According to CABI project scientist Shamela Rambadan, this not only assists in the more efficient sharing of anecdotal information on plant health, but the identification of worldwide trends—a process that can contribute toward the prevention of or preparation for pests and diseases headed our way but not already present.
Plant pathologist, Steve Maximay, agrees plant clinics are not a new concept but they provide commercial and backyard producers with “added tools to protect the crop.” He however, asserts the clinics and their “plant doctors” must be viewed as just “one aspect of a comprehensive practical programme to ensure that plants produce to their genetic capability.”
Ramnanan is not deluded by the curative potential of such an intervention in individual cases but notes that “as scientists, and with the advances of science in terms of linking (plant health) with weather patterns…we will have an enhanced capacity to predict potential threats at the global level.
“It also will be able to detect new pests and diseases very quickly,” he added. “Normally in the past how it worked was the farmers would only seek advice and solutions when the challenge becomes a huge problem.”
Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj is impressed with the potential of the project. He told the Sunday Guardian the clinics can be seen as “part of the overall thrust to re-position agriculture in the nation’s psyche through a multi-pronged approach…in which there is a re-tooling of everyone from the agriculturalist to the home gardener.” Maximay however, warned that “the clinic will (only) be as successful as the experienced, field-based expertise available to staff it.”
Rambadan explained that training has been an important component of the exercise. “CABI in collaboration with the ministry has trained selected extension officers to act as plant doctors,” she said. So far, 22 “plant doctors” in both Trinidad and Tobago have been trained, plus one person from Carriacou, as part of CABI’s regional mandate. In fact, Plantwise programmes have already been launched, under CABI oversight, in Barbados and Grenada and, soon, in Suriname.
The Plantwise Web site claims the programme has already helped establish over 300 plant clinics in 24 countries with over 100,000 “smallholder farmers and their families” receiving assistance. “This programme operates under the assumption that knowledge is power and attitudes have to change. This is the difference the Plantwise programme makes,” Ramnanan said.
The CABI regional representative is among those who believe that very serious threats to the sustainability of new agricultural thrusts in the country and region loom, not the least being pests and diseases “at our doorstep” in nearby South America, neighbouring Caribbean islands and in transit via international air and sea travel. He hopes there will be sufficient doctors in the house when our time arrives.
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